“Penske perfect” is probably the most succinct way to describe 26-year-old Josef Newgarden as he hoisted the Astor Cup in his first season with Team Penske.
When he signed with Roger Penske’s legendary team in October 2016, Newgarden was faced with a year to adapt to the Penske culture after racing with Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing, CFH Racing and Ed Carpenter Racing since his 2012 rookie campaign.
He moved from Indianapolis to be closer to the team’s base in Mooresville, North Carolina. More than that, he came from a small team to the most successful team in the sport’s history.
He also joined a stellar cast of drivers that includes two Verizon IndyCar Series champions in Will Power and Simon Pagenaud and three-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves.
Rather than struggling to find his footing, he looked like he fit the mold going in what he called a transformation year.
Acclimating to Team Penske was just a small piece of the puzzle. The 2011 Indy Lights Presented by Cooper Tires champion dazzled from the opening lap at St. Petersburg to the final lap at Sonoma.
Two of his wins — at Barber and Toronto — came with the aid of good luck while his victories at Mid-Ohio and Gateway were won with determination and aggression.
“I would agree it’s been my biggest year of change,” Newgarden said. “It’s been my biggest opportunity.
“I’ve had so much to live up to in that you have champions around you, you have guys pushing you every week that are making you get the most out of yourself and you have to match them.
“So it’s given me the biggest opportunity to grow and to prove myself in that environment, and that’s been fun. It’s been really fun and challenging for me.”
Putting It All Together at Sonoma
Entering Sonoma, Newgarden had his work cut out for him. A mistake while leaving the pits at Watkins Glen left him with just a three-point lead over Scott Dixon. Resilient and determined, the driver of the No. 2 hum by Verizon Chevrolet earned his first Penske pole with a Sonoma lap record of 1:15.5205.
Teammate Simon Pagenaud opted to go with a four-stop strategy which vaulted him to the front while everyone else employed a three-stop strategy.
After his final stop, Newgarden pushed his teammate hard for the lead but race strategist Tim Cindric reminded him that a cooler head would prevail.
“That’s my natural instinct inside the car is just to beat whoever is in front of me,” Newgarden said. “That’s what I felt like.
“I was on reds, he was out of the pits, he was like weak prey in front of me, so I’m going to get him. But I also tried to measure it the way I was doing it. I didn’t want to do something silly.
“Obviously the more that that lap progressed, Tim was very vocal and coaching me through it and telling me, this is the situation.
“You know, it made a lot of sense in my mind when he was over the radio, so I’ve got to give a lot of credit to Tim for keeping me in check and making sure that I was thinking correctly this whole weekend and certainly in that moment.”
Newgarden at the Center of IndyCar’s Youth Movement
At 26, Newgarden becomes the youngest series champion since the merger of Indy car racing in 2008. Some Indy car drivers have hit their stride in their 20s while some do not peak until they are in their 30s.
Newgarden didn’t care when he would get his first title, just as long as he got one.
“Some guys hit their fortunes to be in this sport and it takes them 20 years to get where they want to be,” he said. “Some guys it happens in a year or two. I didn’t really know how it was going to work out for me. I think as a racer, you always dream it happens sooner.
“It would have been cool to get a championship sooner than my sixth year, but I can’t complain. I think everything that’s happened in my career has made me who I am today. It’s made me strong inside the race car and inside a race team.”
Looking at the bigger picture, Newgarden’s rise represents the emergence of the next North American superstar in not just IndyCar but in all of motorsports. That is something that Newgarden will carry with pride without question.
“I’ll carry the flag happily,” said Newgarden. “I love the IndyCar Series. I think it’s got the whole world in front of it. I’ll do the best that I can to help spread the word and show people how great this sport is.”
Newgarden’s year as the reigning series champion will begin on the streets of St. Petersburg on the weekend of March 9–11, 2018.